A very interesting short article on the proliferation of emoji being used in court cases, showing their potential for further research in the area of sociolinguistics:

Emoji are showing up as evidence in court more frequently with each passing year. Between 2004 and 2019, there was an exponential rise in emoji and emoticon references in US court opinions, with over 30 percent of all cases appearing in 2018, according to Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, who has been tracking all of the references to “emoji” and “emoticon” that show up in US court opinions. So far, the emoji and emoticons have rarely been important enough to sway the direction of a case, but as they become more common, the ambiguity in how emoji are displayed and what we interpret emoji to mean could become a larger issue for courts to contend with.

Emoji were originally overruled in texts as court evidence, but it has shown that they could provide a different context to the text when the emojis were not included:

“They show up as evidence, the courts have to acknowledge their existence, but often they’re immaterial,” Goldman says. “That’s why many judges decide to say ‘emoji omitted’ because they don’t think it’s relevant to the case at all.” But emoji are a critical part of communication, and in cases where transcripts of online communication are being read to the jury, they need to be characterized as well instead of being skipped over. “You could imagine if you got a winky face following the text sentence, you’re going to read that sentence very differently than without the winky face,” he says.

Interpretation of emoji could also vary according to platforms and phones:

The different depictions of emoji across platforms also pose a problem in judicial rulings. For example, depending on what type of phone you’re using, the “gritting teeth” emoji might look a lot different. Not only are emoji designed differently across smartphone platforms, but people interpret the same emoji differently. An earlier design of the grinning emoji on iOS, for example, was interpreted as being far more negative than the same emoji displayed on other platforms.

What I found most interesting, in order to interpret emoji you don’t go to a linguist, you speak to the community where the particular emoji are often used — kind of like a linguistic ethnography:

Despite the potential for emoji to be interpreted in a wide array of ways, emoji experts don’t really exist. “Emoji usually have dialects. They draw meaning from their context. You could absolutely talk about emoji as a phenomenon, but as for what a particular emoji means, you probably wouldn’t go to a linguist. You would probably go to someone who’s familiar with that community, just like they did with the sex trafficking case,” Goldman says.


  • “With emoji as the driving factor, consumers are much more likely to apply software updates. When ’emoji day’ happens, now an annual event during which Apple adds the annual set of 100+ emoji to iOS and macOS, iPhone owners clamber to run their updates. They’re also, perhaps unwittingly, patching their phones with the latest security updates. It’s a remarkable phenomenon. While, for example, an app advertising a new update as having “various bugs and fixes” may not be immediately updated, the new system update with over 100 new emoji has users actively — even eagerly — installing it.” Emoji as security trojan horse.
  • “At Stanford University this week, a collection of linguists, data scientists, computer researchers, and emoji enthusiasts gathered for the International Workshop on Emoji Understanding and Applications in Social Media, itself a smaller piece of the AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media. They brought with them research on how emoji are changing the way we communicate online, how gender and political affiliation are reproduced online through emoji, and the challenges emoji pose for natural-language processing in computers. The assembled academics also debated basic questions about the nature of emoji: Like, if emoji is something akin to a language, why can’t anyone agree on what individual emoji mean?” Academics gathered to share emoji research.

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